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Dr. Robert Ballard: Beyond ROV's and Telepresence

Well before a cruise actually takes place, we have to prep it. Our vans are always at the university and we go in and we get them all ready. And initially they look pretty, you know, not very exciting, a bunch of black screens. But when you turn this room on, it is magical. It’s like going through Alice’s looking glass. That’s basically what we’re doing—we’re standing before Alice’s looking glass. And through the use of these beautiful plasma displays we’re able to make our mental trip down to the bottom of the ocean.

Now the van is really in three different parts. Up front is where the action is, that’s where the pilot of Hercules, that’s where the pilot of Argis is, that’s where the navigator is. They are all doing their thing. Next to them is where all the video switching is coming in because all of this is being sent out on a satellite. I am in the back of the bus. I live in the back of the bus, and that’s where we have our command center.

Now for many, many years when I was using submarines and I would want to turn on something and I would reach up, they would slap my hand and say “Don’t touch anything, don’t touch anything!” the pilot always had the best window and I would always say “could I look out your window” and he would say “No, no look out the side window” it was very frustrating to always having your hand slapped and always asking “Mother may I?” When I designed this system I wanted to make sure no one was ever going to slap my hand again, and I was never going to have to ask again “Mother may I?” So everything is on demand and I can have whatever I want, whenever I want it without asking.

You’ll notice that all of our cameras on all of our vehicles are high definition cameras. That is very important because what we are trying to do is to simulate presence. And we’re competing with what the human eye can see out of the window of a submarine. So it is critical as technology permits, you’re always at that leading edge of video technology. Right now that leading edge is high definition. Will there be something better than high definition? Absolutely, probably stereo high definition. Ultimately, we’re trying to develop technology that replicates the human eye. So that we can create a true telepresence. So at all stages of the game, we are pushing the technology to make sure it is as good as it possibly can be at this moment. Right now, it is fiber optics and high definition camera systems.

You’ll notice commonly and I’m sure you’ve been looking at that we have headsets on. There is a reason for that. Everyone’s communicating with one another. There are all sorts of practical reasons for it, and there are also some scientific reasons, and also opportunities to reach out off the ship. So we have headsets on the people on the bridge because the bridge is driving the ship so we need to talk to them. When we are launching and recovering vehicles it is very important that the people on the deck are talking to the bridge so that they are putting the ship in the right position. They are also having to talk to the pilot because the pilot is a little blind at this moment. They have to sort of talk, sort of walk the pilot through because they don’t want him to crash into the side of the boat. Or worse, there are big props going on down there and the last thing you want your vehicle or your cable connecting your vehicle is to go into those props. So there are a lot of communications going on.

Now once you get the vehicles down, we have sixteen channels that people can come in. And what’s wonderful about our audio system is we can have multiple different conversations. The pilot, because there are two pilots, there is the Hercules pilot, and Argis pilot, and there is ship operator. So there’s always a symphony of voices going on as they’re coordinating. It’s sort of a choreography of dancing vehicles. So they always have to be talking to one another. Well, while that’s going on, the scientists are talking to one another. Because you’re going to have scientists in the command center, but you also have scientists on the beach. And they’re looking at the same monitor. So there are all these conversations between scientists comparing notes, talking to people in the lab, talking to people on the ship, talking to people on the shore. It’s sort of a party line. But then we also use this to do educational programming. We do shows for museums and aquariums, and science centers; for schools, for Boys and Girls Clubs of America. And so we have another set of conversations going on and what I always love to do is sit in the back of the command center, put my microphone on mute so they can’t hear me, and then I listen in on everybody. It’s sort of sneaky, but you get to listen to all the conversations. It’s really wonderful because you really hear true excellence in operation. It’s a quiet excellence, they’re not noisy, they know what they’re doing.


Related Links

Dr. Robert Ballard Profile


Please note that all OceanAGE Career content was current at the time that interviews were recorded; however, profiles are not being updated to reflect subsequent career changes.